Six years ago, Wilton was introduced to Manal Alazzam, who came to Wilton as a 33-year-old Syrian refugee with her five young children between the ages of 3- and 13 years old. Manal had fled war-torn Syria with her children after her husband was killed, leaving with just a few belongings and carrying her youngest in her arms, and her second youngest strapped to her back. The family walked for 13 days to cross the border into Jordan, where they survived 18 months in a refugee camp before being accepted into a program that placed them in Wilton to be sponsored by Wi-ACT, the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee.
Wi-ACT Steering Committee Chair Stephen Hudspeth shared that last week, Manal was sworn in as an American citizen. Below is his update on how life has changed for Manal and her children.
Last Wednesday, Dec. 28 was a banner day for widowed young mother Manal Alazzam — the day she was sworn into U.S. citizenship after passing a government interview process that included English-language testing and answering challenging questions about U.S. polity and geography for which she’d studied very carefully and which she passed with flying colors!
Manal could hardly have imagined that day eight years ago when she made her escape from Syria with her five young children — one a babe-in-arms and another clinging to her back. Assad’s police had terrorized them, including trashing their modest home and seizing Manal’s father, to the point that as a last desperate resort, Manal made a two-week trek on foot through war zones with her five young children to the Jordanian border, without any assurance of being admitted to that country.
The family somehow made it across that border and, after 18 months in refugee status in Jordan and very intensive U.S.-government vetting, they entered the U.S. refugee-asylum program. The next step brought them into the warm embrace of the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT) with its motto, “We Act Together for Good.” The congregants of 12 Wilton faith institutions (Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim) comprise Wi-ACT’s 38-member Steering Committee and constitute many of its year-round volunteers, though other volunteers are drawn from the larger Wilton community.
After its previous experience with an Iraqi family, Wi-ACT welcomed Manal and her family on their March 2016 arrival at JFK Airport and transported them to their new accommodations in Wilton. The School Sisters of Notre Dame generously provided a small house on their Wilton campus at a very modest rent.
So began a town-wide process of making Wilton the family’s new home. That process has involved many elements for Manal and her children, including intensive ESL work for Manal with skilled Wi-ACT volunteers. Her children’s education has been advanced by caring and accomplished teachers and administrators in the Wilton Public Schools who have met their educational needs beautifully. For the youngest children it was also thoughtfully advanced through Wilton pre-school and after-school programs at Community Nursery School, Create Learning Center, Wilton Parks and Recreation, and the Wilton Family YMCA.
Those elements also have included excellent medical care from Wi-ACT Steering Committee members Dr. Hossein Sadeghi, a nationally preeminent pediatric pulmonologist on the Columbia Medical School faculty, and Dr. Golnar Raissi, and the other medical professionals to whom they referred the family.
The family’s dental care has been generously provided by Dr. Paul Keating and their eye care by Dr. Irene Rosenberg.
The Wilton Police Department joined in the process by providing support in multiple different forms including by bringing several patrol cars to the family’s home to show them some of their features and to let the family see firsthand that our police do not function like Assad’s. Their work had such a positive impact on the family that Manal’s second oldest son, Ahmad, now a sophomore at Wilton High School, has maintained for some years a strong desire to become a police officer himself.
Wi-ACT volunteers also provided job training and job-search help. Manal had only an eighth-grade education in Syria but is very bright and a fast learner. Her early occupations included pillow-making and other sewing work and work making a specialized form of humidifier called a Dampit for use inside stringed instruments. Manal quickly added to her English-language vocabulary the words “violin,” “viola,” “cello,” and “bass,” since each requires a different form of Dampit. Since then, her love of, and skill at, food preparation and cooking has moved her into food-service work both in Wilton schools and in senior care.
Meanwhile, Manal’s children have flourished in the Wilton schools and, for daughter Bisan, now at Norwalk’s Center for Global Studies Magnet High School. Bisan is in her senior year and preparing to enter college next fall. Her eldest brother Mohammad is working as a store manager bringing additional income to the family and hoping to continue his formal education in due course. Bisan and Ahmad work part-time at T.J. Maxx, and Ahmad worked full-time over the summer for Rolling Hills Country Club on its groundskeeping crew with an invitation to return next summer. The youngest brothers Yaqoub and Ghaith are outgoing and have many friends. They’re receiving outstanding education and care at Middlebrook and Cider Mill Schools, respectively. And Manal’s four children under 18 years of age on the date she was naturalized are themselves eligible for citizenship automatically under the Child Citizenship Act of 2001 upon the appropriate filing with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Manal said with great feeling that she and her family are incredibly fortunate. “I’m so happy and honored to be a U.S. citizen, and I have so many people to thank for that. I know from Syria what fear and lack of freedom are, and I know from America the opposite. America is safety and hope. Here, dreams can be realized.”
Bisan, too, is grateful. “America has been so good to our family, and we’ve been surrounded by so many thoughtful and caring people here in Wilton. They set an example for me to follow, and I couldn’t be happier for the way this journey has shaped who I am today, a proud Syrian American!”
Wi-ACT continues to operate in an assisting and advising role, though Manal and her family are fully financially independent and make their own decisions on all matters.
And that is Wi-ACT’s ultimate objective in the rewarding, though oftentimes challenging, work of refugee resettlement — efforts that (along with its other work) now help a young Ukrainian mother and her 10-year-old son who have come here for the up-to-two-year period allowed under the Ukrainian Humanitarian Parole Program while her husband remains in Ukraine.
An apt prayer implores, “For the victims of warfare, may their mourning be turned into joy.” For Manal and her family, that is truly happening. May it be true for the people of Ukraine as well.
Editor’s note: Hudspeth wanted to make sure that several individuals and organizations were acknowledged for their roles in resettling Manal and her family:
- Donya and Hossein Kharazi as Wi-ACT’s Education Subcommittee co-chairs have done so much to facilitate the children’s education, from tutoring to interfacing with private preschools in the earlier years and the Wilton Schools throughout and with the Center for Global Studies for Bisan over the last three-plus years.
- Wi-Act’s Government Interface Subcommittee Chair Madeleine Wilken has been tremendous in dealing with the state agencies.
- Don Weber has handled tax filing prep for Manal, and Don Sauvigne was Wi-ACT’s very active interface with the Wilton Police Department as then-chair of the Wilton Police Commission.
- The list of those who made this resettlement work happen is extensive, both Steering Committee members (in ESL, tutoring and sports with the kids) and many general community volunteers who pitched in as drivers before Manal got her driver’s license and with other aspects. In short, “the village it takes…” was very present in Wilton!
- At the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister Charmaine Krohe was the senior-level contact through the first few years of the family’s time in their house and has continued to stay informed about the family’s progress after moving on to Baltimore to head up the School Sisters’ larger Province. On-site in Wilton, Sister Leonora Tucker has been a constant huge help and guide for the family — like a very loving and helpful grandmother to them.
- It was through the nonprofit agency, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (“IRIS”) in New Haven and its outstanding and truly indefatigable executive director Chris George that Wi-ACT received Manal and her family. Wi-Act had been IRIS’s beta test site with the Iraqi family a dozen years ago for what was then IRIS’s new (and very creative and effective) idea of community-based-and-engaged resettlement. The success of that program has not only spread to towns and cities all across CT under IRIS’s leadership and guidance but also nationwide with Connecticut’s great experience helping lead the way.